The new novel by Lloyd Jones is a shock. It is certainly not what I was expecting and is an uncomfortable read. It is dark and disturbing and leaves the reader with many unanswered questions.
Earlier novels by Lloyd Jones, such as 'Mr Pip' or 'Hand Me Down World' have dealt with outsiders, people who have come from somewhere else. 'The Cage' is similar, but it is the reaction to the two outsiders in this book that is utterly surprising.
Two strangers arrive in a small country town. The country is not named but I assume that it is New Zealand because of a kiwi song that some schoolchildren sing. The two men, one old and the other younger, have no papers, no ID, no memory of their names or where they have come from. All we know is that they have been involved in some sort of difficulty or incident. At first they are received civilly and given help, rooms in the local hotel. There is much wary curiosity around the town.
The story is narrated by a young man who is the nephew of the hotel owner. We see everything through his eyes. The strangers are given fence wire in case they want to make something. They produce a big ball, which resembles a cage. It is used as a model for the full size cage they construct outside. When it is complete they become locked in, and the key is somehow 'lost'. Over weeks and months they are forced to accept their imprisonment. The progression of events feels quite natural and plausible. Their treatment will gradually deteriorate. They will be fed only scraps from the kitchen. Trustees from the village are appointed to oversee the strangers and the young nephew is given the task of recording everything the they say or do. Visitors come to look at them, like they would animals in a zoo.
I came away from the novel with mixed feelings. It is undoubtedly very well written and perfectly crafted. I am simply unsure about the message it is trying to tell me. Is it about the way that we treat strangers in our society, or is it more about the excuses that we make about how badly we treat people? Or to push that idea a little further, is the true message hidden in the failure to act. The failure of the narrator to take a stand and so be complicit in the actions? Eventually the hotel owner's wife will leave and the trustees will begin to resign, but these direct actions are a long time coming. Too late for the strangers. Perhaps the true message is too deeply veiled below the surface.
REVIEWER: Marcus Hobson
Penguin Random House, RRP $38.00